Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Poverty

By Rebecca Skloot

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In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, poverty boils down to two things: limited access to basic human necessities and vulnerability to predatory behavior. We learn that both of these things are worse when you factor in racial prejudice. Even at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was established specifically to care for the poor, black community in Baltimore, racial segregation meant that black patients didn't have equal access to health care.

Poverty also meant lack of education, something that would plague Deborah and her immediate family as they try to understand what HeLa cells were and how they helped the world. The Lackses also knew what it meant for impoverished black men and women to be exploited by the scientific community for convenience or profit. It's no wonder, then, that the Lacks family first focus their anger on the fact that strangers are making money off their mother's cells when they've always been poor.

Questions About Poverty

  1. How does poverty affect the Lacks family's ability to obtain justice for their mother?
  2. In what ways does a lack of education affect Deborah and her family?
  3. How does racial inequality specifically affect Henrietta and her family?
  4. In what ways does poverty make the Lacks family more vulnerable to exploitation?

Chew on This

Although John Moore loses his lawsuit for control over his biological materials, it points up the socio-economic differences that make it impossible for the Lackses to take the same action on behalf of Henrietta.

Poverty plus racism makes it doubly hard to pull yourself up financially.

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